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Coming of Age


A view of the Fairfax Campus from atop the Patriot Center.

Once upon a time, there was a little commuter school set in the woods on the outskirts of a charming little town…

There is a story Jim Larranaga, Mason men’s basketball coach, likes to tell about his decision to stay at the university in spring 2008. After news broke of Larranaga’s receiving a lucrative offer to coach at his alma mater, Providence College, university president Alan Merten asked to meet with him. The two men met on a Saturday afternoon in Merten’s office on the Fairfax Campus. After an almost three-hour chat, the two left the building and headed to their cars.

“Then Dr. Merten stopped and asked me if I had a few more moments,” the coach says. Much to his surprise, the president offered him a tour of campus.

“But I’ve worked here 11 years,” Larranaga told him.

Despite this, they got into Merten’s car and began a tour of Fairfax Campus construction. To this day, when Larranaga tells the story, there is still a bit of awe—and pride—in his voice.

“It isn’t just that we’ve grown,” he says, “but we’ve grown so well.”

When the General Assembly separated George Mason College from the University of Virginia in 1972, it did so with instructions that the college was to become a major university and a force in the region. The university has done that and so much more. After 37 years of unprecedented growth, George Mason University is undergoing a transformation, not just a physical one with $500 million in new construction, but also an ideological one. No longer a work in progress, Mason has come of age.

A number of factors are driving the growth. “A certain amount of it is location, location, location,” says Merten, who has been Mason’s president since 1996. “Location has given us opportunities, and we—[former university president] George Johnson and the people he brought and the people I brought—have taken advantage of it. But location by itself isn’t sufficient.”

Merten believes the changes have just as much to do with attitude. “We can do something different here. I believe people don’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care. People who are aware of the value of the caring attitude buy into it right away. People who want to do their own thing don’t come here or don’t stay here.”

Mason has always been about connections, taking advantage of the resources in the community that surrounds each of its campuses and in exchange meeting the needs of those particular constituencies. Whether it was establishing the first engineering school in the country to focus on information technology to meet the workforce needs of an emerging high-tech corridor, which Mason did in the 1980s, or building an aquatic and fitness facility that could serve the university and community, as it did in Prince William County in the 1990s, Mason has made the most of its location and its connections.

Using a distributed university model, Mason has established campuses in Arlington, Fairfax, and Prince William Counties, each offering programs and resources specific to the community in which they reside.

Arlington Campus

In the early 1970s, the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia refused to let Mason have a law school, but by the end of the decade, the university had one. In 1979, Mason acquired the International School of Law, and the Arlington Campus, then called the Metro Campus, became a reality.

An artist's rendering of Founders Hall.

The law school took up residence in the former Kann’s Department Store building, which is now referred to as the Original Building and is still in use. By 1980, the university added additional graduate programs to its offerings in Arlington, as well as an art gallery.

The law school quickly became known for its emphasis on the economic analysis of law and a prominent faculty that over the years has included U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, former Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, and former U.S. Senator Charles Robb. The faculty currently includes many former government officials and a number of the country’s leading legal scholars.

Since first making the U.S.News & World Report’s ranking as one of the top 50 law schools in the United States, Mason has moved up the ranks steadily and enjoys the status of being the youngest school in the top 40. In addition, the school boasts the highest bar pass rate in the state with 88.8 percent of graduates passing versus an average of 71.9 percent statewide.

Students studying in Hazel Hall

Law school students study in Hazel Hall.

But space—academic, administrative, and parking—has been at a premium for the Arlington Campus. In 1996, Mason broke ground on the first of a three-phase redevelopment project. Phase I was completed in fall 1998 with the opening of Hazel Hall, which houses the School of Law, the Mercatus Center, and the Institute for Humane Studies.

Phase II is currently under way and will provide 250,000 square feet of space for the School of Public Policy, the School of Law, and academic and student-support services, as well as parking facilities, critical in such an urban area. Building occupancy is anticipated for spring 2010.

In the meantime, to deal with the burgeoning campus population and ever-expanding programmatic offerings, the university has had to lease space in adjacent buildings. The Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, the College of Health and Human Services’ Department of Social Work, and the Critical Infrastructure Protection Program, among others, call the nearby Truland Building home. The George Mason University Foundation building also provides leased office space, retail space, and parking facilities.

And although Phase III is a critical part of the master plan, it is a bittersweet one for those who have fond memories of what was probably the only law school in the country with an escalator. Phase III will replace the Original Building with a new building that will provide 750,000 square feet of academic and office space. Before preparations to raze the former department store even began, the Washington Post eulogized the Original Building in a November 2007 article. The Post quoted Larry Czarda, vice president for administration, “It’s been one of our monumental buildings, one that everyone who attended class there remembers, and somewhat fondly.”

Prince William Campus

Mason’s foray into Prince William County began with a two-person staff in a storefront office in a Manassas business park. Since ground was broken on the campus in late 1994 (roads to the parcel of land needed to be built first), the campus has been about partnerships. The original 120 acres of land, valued at $13 million at the commencement of construction, were donated by IBM and a number of local real-estate developers.

Lance Liotta and Emanuel Petricoin

Lance Liotta and Emanuel Petricoin of Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine are advancing cancer research in their laboratories on the Prince William Campus.

“Quite literally, there was nothing there but open farm fields just a few years ago,” says Czarda, who for several years oversaw operations on the campus.

Prince William’s emphasis on life sciences was no accident. When the American Type Culture Collection (ATCC), one of the foremost biological resource centers in the world, decided to relocate to Northern Virginia in the 1990s, it chose to build adjacent to the Prince William Campus—literally right across the street. It was also understood that ATCC would share laboratory space in Discovery Hall when it was completed in 1998.

Now ATCC is not the only research entity with which Mason has a working relationship. Some of the most cutting-edge research in the biosciences, from cancer research to thwarting biological weapons, is being conducted in Discovery Hall, which now also hosts the research laboratories of the Center for Biomedical Genomics, the National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases (NCBID), and the Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine.

The research enterprise at Prince William—and the university overall—is strong and growing. In 2008, the university broke ground on a biomedical research laboratory. The new facility is one of 13 regional biocontainment laboratories being built nationwide with a $25 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health. Mason is providing an estimated $15.3 million in matching funds.

“The work Mason researchers will conduct in the new lab is important not just to our region, but to the country as a whole,” says Charles Bailey, NCBID’s executive director.

Occoquan Building

The Occoquan Building was the first building completed on the campus.

Mason was also the first occupant of Innovation@Prince William, the research and development park created by the county. Along with its neighbors—Lockheed Martin Federal Systems, Micron, BAE Systems, and others—the campus is a major contributor to a competitive environment for pioneering academic, research, and business activities.

These relationships provide extraordinary research opportunities for the university’s graduate students, as well as professional development for employees of these neighboring companies. Mason’s School of Management has had an ongoing relationship with Lockheed Martin and tweaked a number of academic programs, including the MBA, to meet the specific needs of those employees.

The university has also partnered with the City of Manassas and Prince William County to create shared resources, such as the Freedom Aquatic and Fitness Center. The center, one of the largest recreational facilities on the East Coast when it opened in 1999, has been so successful that a new collaborative project is under way.

Construction has begun on the Hylton Performing Arts Center, which will feature multiple performance, rehearsal, and meeting spaces. The facility’s grand opening is scheduled for early 2010 (see story [2]).

Fairfax Campus

Mason’s Fairfax Campus is changing so rapidly that things look different from one semester to the next. People returning from summer break had a big surprise with Patriot Circle (temporarily) no longer a circle because of construction access issues. Despite the growing pains, it is a sign of good things to come.

In 2005, Mason began the biggest construction project in the university’s history: the Northeast Sector. The project comprises seven buildings that provide an urban neighborhood atmosphere.

Snowy view of the quad

The original quad was at the center of the four original buildings (North, South, East, and West) on campus.

Five of the buildings house more than 1,000 students, which will bring Mason’s residential population up to nearly 6,000. Students live on the buildings’ upper floors, and retail spaces, such as shops, a Starbucks, a convenience store, a restaurant, and office space, occupy the ground level. The sixth building features a two-story fitness center, and the seventh is a resident dining facility, Southside, which opened this fall.

But that’s just a small part of the ongoing construction on the campus. The university also has two academic buildings coming on line in the next year. When completed, Academic VI, the new 180,000-square-foot building for the Volgenau School of Information Technology and Engineering, will be the largest academic building on the Fairfax Campus. It will also let Mason celebrate another first. In addition to wired classrooms, research labs, and administrative office space, the building will offer corporate lease space, making it the first of its kind in Virginia’s public university system.

By bringing together research endeavors, academic re-sources, and some of the university’s corporate partners in one building, the Volgenau School will offer a stimulating environment for the kind of collaboration needed to resolve the world’s and region’s most pressing concerns, from issues involving network security and homeland security to producing the information technology workers needed to keep this region competitive internationally.

The adjacent Academic V will provide lecture halls, state-of-the-art studio space, expanded gallery space, and an outdoor sculpture garden for the Department of Art and Visual Technology (AVT). With the new building, AVT will take advantage of Internet2 technology, which will enable students to collaborate with artists and participate in national and international projects, competitions, and discussions.

The Patriot Center and the Physical Education Building are also undergoing major renovations, and an additional parking deck is being built. Two new projects that are just now making their way from the planning stages are the hotel and conference center, and faculty and staff housing.

Mason Inn, the new hotel and conference center, which will be located where the Patriot Village housing community once stood, is expected to be completed in spring 2010.

The university will also begin construction later this fall on a townhome community that will be transitional housing for recently hired university faculty and staff. One hundred fifty-five housing units are expected to be ready for occupancy in December 2009.

In 2009, the university marks the 50th anniversary of transactions that set the course for what has become the Fairfax Campus—the first 150 acres that lie beneath the four original buildings near University Drive.

Few people know that the kernel of an idea that became George Mason University can be traced to a handful of lawyers reminiscing about their salad days at the University of Virginia. It was those gentlemen on their days walking into the Fairfax County Courthouse, lonesome for Charlottesville, who posed the question, wouldn’t this be the perfect place for a college town?

—Dave Andrews, Catherine Ferraro, and Jennifer Halpin contributed to this story.